EXCLUSIVE: When you talk to Michael Eisner now, it’s sometimes hard to remember how controversial he was 10 years ago this month when he stepped down as Disney’s CEO. In his 21 years at the company he woke a sleeping giant, and accelerated its growth with the purchase of Capital Cities/ABC. But at the end, opponents led by Walt Disney’s nephew, Roy, said that he had become a sharp-elbowed Imperial CEO who couldn’t separate the company’s interests from his own.
Memories of the Disney years remain bright, and sometimes hot. (Check his sharp response below to lawyer Bert Fields’ recent claim to Deadline that Eisner once tried to have him banned from Disney’s lot.)
Yet Eisner, 73, seems to have relaxed into his role as an éminence grise with a youthful enthusiasm for media, ideas, and intriguing ventures — which he pursues at The Tornante Company, the strategic investment firm he founded.
Netflix is riding the success of Tornante’s BoJack Horseman, a mordant animated series for adults about a washed up TV star (with a horse’s head on a human body). The streaming company, which simply rented DVDs when Eisner left Disney, recently released a second season, and ordered a third.
TV station giant Sinclair Broadcast Group turned to Eisner to create a joint venture in June that could reshape daytime programming. They’ll develop shows for Sinclair’s 162 TV outlets and also make them available for syndication. Meanwhile Topps, the trading card company Eisner bought in 2007, hopes to score big on its deal to sell physical and digital cards for Star Wars.
I caught up with Eisner last week to discuss his latest ventures, and views. Here are his comments, edited for length and clarity.
DEADLINE: At the end of this month it will be the 10-year anniversary of your leaving Disney. Do you miss it?
EISNER: No. I am still a major cheerleader. I don’t have to get there at 8 o’clock in the morning and stay until 8 at night. I don’t have to travel around the world constantly. I don’t have 140,000 people I’m responsible for. Do I miss the ability to say, “Gee, I had an idea in the shower: let’s go do this” with nobody arguing? Yes. Do I miss the fact that we had enormous cash flow that began when we started to improve the parks, etc.? Yes. But I like doing all the things I’m doing. I’m below the radar. Nobody really cares what I’m doing. Which is great. I spent about 40 years at a public company, so I’ve done that. I loved ABC. I loved Paramount – Charlie Bludhorn and Barry Diller, working for them was fantastic. And Disney of course was Disney, which served me well. So that’s fine.
DEADLINE: Your career’s been filled with family friendly fare at Disney and Paramount including shows such as Cheers, Family Ties, Happy Days, and Laverne And Shirley. What’s the line that connects them to the bleakness of BoJack Horseman?
EISNER: Well there also was Ordinary People, Terms Of Endearment, Atlantic City, and Pretty Baby. The first movie we made at Disney was Down And Out In Beverly Hills. They probably thought they brought some sort of anti-Disney person into the organization. We quickly recovered. In creating Touchstone we wanted a brand that writers and directors and producers would be interested in being part of because Disney had such a sweet and innocent, nonaggressive image for so long, since Walt died. So the idea of only doing saccharine, family oriented or under 13 oriented has never been in my DNA.
DEADLINE: Does BoJack’s dyspeptic portrayal of Hollywood reflect your view of it now?
EISNER: No. The show has nothing to do with Hollywood. It’s about all kinds of complicated characters who come from complicated backgrounds. It’s about success versus happiness, and relationships versus being singular. Trying to find yourself in a complicated world. The whole concept of doing it over and over again if you are successful. Dealing with functional and dysfunctional. Dealing with loneliness in the middle of the night. The show’s about happiness and about depression and invigoration. The show is not really about Hollywood.
DEADLINE: It just happens to be based there.
EISNER: Yeah. Sometimes I’ll go to the guys and say, “Let’s not make it so ‘in.’ Let’s not use ‘in’ Hollywood terms.” I think the reason it’s so successful is not because it’s about Hollywood but because it’s about people who are thick — they’re not skin deep, they are thick. They’re happy and miserable at the same time. And it’s really funny.
DEADLINE: What makes you think BoJack is about to become a cultural phenomenon?
EISNER: It feels like one of those things that’s about to do that. [Season 2] has 100% positive score on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s been written about as the best show on television. Just like when Happy Days went against Maude, we had a couple of years when we were waiting for it to generate a thing and it happened. Or John Travolta going from Welcome Back Kotter to The Boy In The Plastic Bubble to Saturday Night Fever. These things happen. They don’t really happen overnight. They get into the culture and then eventually more and more people find it and then all the sudden you wake up and it’s a phenomenon.
DEADLINE: Wouldn’t that be hard to do at Netflix, which has limited distribution?
EISNER: In a way they already did it with House Of Cards. It took Netflix out of the library platform. We’re in the middle of our third season of production, 12 episodes on the same day in nine languages – that’s unheard of. You used to deliver in one language and then you’d dub it into French and then Italian may be and then Spanish. Now it’s nine languages, same day, all episodes.
DEADLINE: What’s the business model for the show? Where could it go after Netflix?
EISNER: You know, I never thought about that. I never have in my life thought about the business model of anything.
EISNER: No. To me it’s always been about, “Hey, let’s put on a show. Let’s do something interesting. Let’s just make it good and the business model will follow.” Obviously you have to put it in a financial box. As far as thinking about where the future is – whether it goes in this platform or that platform, or goes into syndication and when you do electronic sell through and when you do home-video and when you do merchandise and T-shirts or don’t do T-shirts. We talk about that every day. But that’s after we talk for three or four hours about what the show is and how do we make sure that everybody’s happy and that we’re animating it beautifully. Everything gets washed away in a mammoth hit, and nothing gets washed away in a failure.
DEADLINE: Would you be satisfied if it just appeared on Netflix?
EISNER: Well yes. First of all, we are everywhere Netflix is, and in nine languages. Plus we happen to own the show, so we have the ability to go into television syndication and electronic sell through and all the things that are on the horizon.
DEADLINE: FX’s John Landgraf said a couple of weeks ago that there are too many TV shows. There isn’t enough revenue to sustain them all. Do you agree?
EISNER: How can there be too much television? There may be too much bad television. There may be too much inane television. But the fact that there’s so much television means there’s more good television today than even in the so-called Golden Age of television with Playhouse 90, John Frankenheimer, Rod Serling and all those people,. I was there at ABC when we did Stage 67. We tried to do quality television and the Movie Of The Week and Roots and all the stuff that I did with Barry [Diller]. All of the things that we did, which are remembered as the high point of television, are not as high as it is today.
DEADLINE: What accounts for that?
EISNER: First, volume. There are so many platforms and so many people putting so much money into television. And we are at a time when people realize that quality works. It’s a little bit like Houston in the 1970s when [developer] Gerald Hines decided that good architecture works and hired Philip Johnson to start building skyscrapers of a certain quality. All of the crap that was built in the 1950s and 60s started to go away. Companies realized that the quality of architecture actually attracts human beings.
The same thing now is happening in television. The content defines the platform. The platform doesn’t define the content. It is no longer a vast wasteland, which is what [former FCC Chairman] Newton Minow called it. It was a vast wasteland when there were only three television networks and you could say to people, “You’ll never work in this town again.” Those days are over. It’s more like the movie business. Anybody with a good idea will find somebody who likes it. I would say there’s not enough television.
DEADLINE: A lot of cable networks are starting to become afraid of Netflix. Is that justified?
EISNER: Yes. As [RCA and NBC founder] David Sarnoff said, competition brings out the best in product, and the worst in people. Everybody’s nervous about the new guy coming up. This is really healthy. And it’s not just healthy for people who like content. It’s healthy for the audience. It also brings down costs for the consumer.
DEADLINE: Movie theaters are worried about Netflix’s plan to release new films the same day they become available online.
EISNER: That’s a lot of noise. The movies that people are trying to make that bypass the theaters generally are pretty poor, and this has been going on forever. There is an audience. There was for Aeschylus and Sophocles and Shakespeare and all the way up to today. There is room for people to sit with a lot of other people and enjoy content. You don’t want to go on a date with your parents in the other room. People have to get out. Yes, 80 million people in the 1930s went every week to a movie. That doesn’t happen anymore. But that doesn’t mean the movie business is over. It’s changing.
DEADLINE: Steven Spielberg said that there’s going to be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western. If he’s right then wouldn’t that be a disaster for Disney which spent $4 billion apiece for Marvel and Lucasfilm?
EISNER: Will the appetite for giant $250 million movies continue forever with nothing else replacing it? Probably not. But that’s been true for a long time. I don’t think the analogy of the Western is [accurate]. The dream of the West and all the violence of the West and the way it was depicted in movies has been replaced by the urban violent movie. I think the Western, it wasn’t that it got boring. It’s that it no longer reflected society. But there are times particularly on television where the audience gets tired of it and something else takes its place.
DEADLINE: So are Pixar and Marvel and Lucasfilm good bets?
EISNER: I think Bob has done a fantastic job. Pixar is really a continuation of what we had done. But going off and buying Marvel and Lucas was smart and aggressive. And there will be a time when Disney will have to say, what’s next? They’ll have to figure that out then. Right now I think it’s been a great growth opportunity.
DEADLINE: I want to give you an opportunity to respond to something that Bert Fields recently told Deadline in an interview. He said that you had him banned from Disney because he represented George Lucas. Is that accurate?
EISNER: That’s ridiculous. I never had anybody banned from Disney. I don’t even know what that means. He represented aggressively people that were either unhappy with Disney or made themselves feel that they were unhappy with Disney. I don’t think he’s as good as he thinks he is. That’s my opinion. He spends a lot of time talking about people like me that he doesn’t like. …. The first thing I did at Disney was make a deal with George Lucas with Star Wars and Raiders Of The Lost Ark. We made Raiders Of The Lost Ark at Paramount. I have a great relationship with George Lucas. And I don’t even remember him representing George Lucas. He didn’t represent George Lucas on that deal. So that’s baloney. I can’t believe he would say something like that. Unbelievable.
DEADLINE: He also said that he was planning to organize a strike by entertainment lawyers against Disney and that Jeffrey Katzenberg got you to back down.
EISNER: First time I’ve ever heard that. Just now. I never heard that in my life. That is complete ridiculousness. Jeffrey Katzenberg never discussed that with me. Nobody’s ever mentioned that before this very conversation. Bert is Bert. The fact of the matter is that the kind of thing that was just asked me is the kind of thing he would like advertised. It’s just totally ridiculous. There’s nothing in the world that would support that.
DEADLINE: The big story at Disney is Star Wars. You have a stake in it at Topps. How big is it going to be?
EISNER: It’s inconceivable to me that it is not going to be, if not the biggest film of the year, then in the top two or three. It’s going to be gigantic. I see it through Topps. We have an app that is exploding and we only have seven new cards and we have the whole library beyond that. The rest will come out the day the film opens. The appetite for this app at Topps around the world – it’s scary it’s so high. And a lot of people tell me their kids who haven’t seen all the movies have gotten into the Star Wars culture through our app. It’s a great culture. You have a director who’s fantastic. I have not seen the film but I can’t imagine it’s not great.
DEADLINE: Some analysts think it might hit Avatar numbers. But Bob Iger is telling analysts to be careful predicting how well it will do at the box office.
EISNER: Bob Iger is an excellent CEO. Of course he’s going to say that. Why wouldn’t he say that? You want to exceed expectations; you don’t want to fall short of them. But I, who can’t control myself: after I’d say how big it would be I’d have four public relations people telling me: “How can you say that? Now all we’re going to do is fail.” But I do believe it’s going to be gigantic.
DEADLINE: Iger had a problem dealing with expectations last month when he trimmed a financial forecast for ESPN. That led to a big selloff of media stocks. Investors saw it as confirmation that cord cutting is a serious problem.
EISNER: I talked to Bob about that and I think he did the right thing. I don’t think he anticipated that there’d be a selloff across the industry, that he woke up the world to the fact that there was an over-the-top revolution going on and cutting the cord was a real thing and all the rest of that. I think he did exactly the right thing. Bob Iger is trusted for telling the truth.
DEADLINE: So you think Wall Street overreacted?
EISNER: Yeah, they always overreact. But the markets are real. Eventually — not the next day or the next month, but over years and decades — they tell the truth about the companies they’re following. So I wouldn’t overreact. Disney stock thankfully is extremely strong and clean now. The company is well-managed and the assets are good. I think he put it on a good path. And when he retires from the company, he will leave it in better shape than when he got it.
DEADLINE: There’s still a debate over whether cord cutting is a serious issue. It sounds like you think it is real.
EISNER: It is real. Anecdotally you know it’s real. Obviously the companies distribute the information and you know it’s real. It got very expensive for the consumer to carry all the products that they carry on cable. At Best Buy I bought a TV and a digital antenna. It cost, I don’t know, $140. The whole thing. I put up the antenna and not only did I get a perfect picture, I get three channels for one on the diginets. So there are hundreds of channels now that are available on broadcast. There is a cord cutting opportunity. Then you have $8 a month for Netflix, and then Amazon Prime — and people who don’t want to give up entertainment now have alternatives to taking it all. Luckily, cable is distributing the connection so it’s not all bad for cable.
DEADLINE: It’s bad news for cable channels though. Will the expanded basic bundle that supported so many channels for so many years break apart soon?
EISNER: Look I was very unhappy 10 years ago about the thought of it breaking up and ESPN going from 90 million homes to 30 million homes. So, yes, it’s a very, very big issue. I think at the end of the day it’s positive for the consumer and it will happen.
DEADLINE: How long? Within five years?
EISNER: It’s not going to be overnight. You’ll wake up in five or 10 years and you will not believe it if somebody says to you at a dinner party, “Do you know that the History Channel had 85 million homes?”
DEADLINE: In that world, ESPN might be fine. But what about ESPN2 or ESPNU or other smaller channels?
EISNER: I think ESPN is going to be fine because ESPN knows what they’re doing. They will continue to acquire rights. They will continue to have on their platform live programming that people want to have. So I don’t think ESPN is the issue. The issue may be programming channels that have no reason to be, frankly. They were put on because companies had the power to push them on behind their retransmission [consent deals].
DEADLINE: Are there any specific companies that you think should be worried?
EISNER: Yeah, but I’m not going to tell you.
DEADLINE: You have a new deal to develop daytime programming for Sinclair. How did that come about?
EISNER: I ran daytime television in my youth for ABC and put on All My Children and One Life To Live, and a whole bunch of stuff. I enjoyed that. And I did something recently with Sinclair: I guess they wanted somebody who has played in the programming field to help them in their quest to own more of the shows than they may have in the past. Distributors realize that not only is linear programming going to be the future, but also interactive programming. They are smart to know that they had to be in that space. So we’re a partner in that space.
DEADLINE: Do you have any specific shows?
EISNER: We have six in development, none of which are worth talking about at this point. All of the sudden I’m back to where I was when I was 25, but with shows I never looked at in the past.
DEADLINE: Last year you tweeted that you thought Hillary Clinton “must” run for president. Do you still feel that way?
EISNER: I would like to have a president who is experienced. I would like to have a president who has been there and done it. I would like to have a president who comes with a knowledge of the world and who knows the individual players personally. And I would like to have a president who is mature, intelligent, restrained, and worthy of the job. There are candidates out there who have those qualities, including Hillary Clinton.
DEADLINE: What do you make of the Donald Trump phenomenon? Is that about politics, or culture and entertainment?
EISNER: It’s almost like a game show. It’s like people venting what they are so angry about and being popular – almost like a Paddy Chayefsky play. Donald Trump comes along and he expresses what a lot of people have in their unconscious nightmarish thoughts, which is that everything is falling apart. I don’t really think that style of insulting people, everybody you can insult, should be representing our country.
DEADLINE: Does television bear any responsibility for that? He became famous on a reality show.
EISNER: Now you’re blaming the medium rather than the message. As far as I know, NBC is not running the country. If they want to put him on to fire people in an entertainment vehicle, that’s fine with me. I don’t really think I would like him to represent us around the world. That makes me nervous. And I don’t think there’s any chance that it’s going to happen. But I could be wrong.
By the way, nobody’s going to watch [the GOP presidential debate] on CNN because they think they’re going to get news. This is better than a NASCAR race. They’re looking for a big crash. It’s a game show. CNN has entered the game show business under the guise of news. It tells you that our country really isn’t in such terrible shape. People get obsessed with unimportant things in times of peace and prosperity. I don’t think you would have seen this in 2008. We had a real crisis in 2008.